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The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary
The Theology of B.B. Warfield
Author : Fred G. Zaspel
Publish : 2010
Description : In the ninety years since the death of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, his influence has hardly waned. Of course, that influence is greatest among those closest to his basic theological stance: Reformed confessionalism. Among conservative Presbyterians, the “Lion of Princeton” continues to be regarded as a leading defender of Westminster orthodoxy. But Warfield’s appeal has always been broader than to one constituency. His writings on Christology and, especially, the inspiration of Scripture remain magisterial for all English-speaking theological conservatives, including mainstream Fundamentalists.

Nevertheless, Warfield is somewhat inaccessible. Those who have labored through the various collections of his writings, such as Inspiration and Authority of Scripture or Selected Shorter Writings, find a dictionary indispensable. Indeed, reading Warfield expands the vocabulary of anyone but the most erudite. Furthermore, his thinking is often intricate, nuanced, and, therefore, challenging. The Theology of B.B. Warfield, from the pen of Fred Zaspel, is then a welcome addition to all who wish to better understand Warfield. Zaspel pored through the thousands of pages of Warfield material to produce what Warfield himself never attempted: a systematic theology that reflects the contours and emphases of Warfield’s long teaching and writing ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary (1886–1921).

Zaspel is not a Presbyterian but a Reformed Baptist, and he is best known as a proponent of New Covenant Theology. That such a person would devote such immense energy to systematizing Warfield’s theology is surprising, because Warfield ardently affirmed infant baptism and stood in the center of the historic Reformed position. For the most part, however, Zaspel skillfully hides behind his subject by allowing Warfield to speak and not intruding his own theological opinions. Zaspel does occasionally critique Warfield’s position, but he does so only on the basis of what he perceives as the weakness of a particular Warfield argument, never from the platform of an opposing theological system. This restraint on Zaspel’s part is admirable and makes the volume useful to readers from a variety of perspectives.

In the 600-page tome, Zaspel attempts to devote space in his book proportionate to Warfield’s output. Not surprisingly, then, the longest chapter deals with soteriology. Warfield was, of course, a thorough-going Calvinist, and his rebuttals of the various liberal soteriologies that were afloat in his lifetime begin by affirming supernaturalism and end by arguing that supernatural soteriology is ultimately simply Calvinism. Readers of various persuasions may very well demur at this line of Warfield thinking, but the best tendencies of Calvinism—to emphasize man’s utter dependence and God’s supreme glory—are so evident throughout the chapter that one’s heart is warmed even if one does not accept all the conclusions to which this reasoning led Warfield. Warfield’s critique of the various versions of perfectionism that arose in Germany, Britain, and America in thenineteenth century is devastating and still extremely relevant. Anyone interacting with Keswick or higher life teachings can still benefit from Warfield’s trenchant argumentation.

Warfield is best known to conservatives for his writings in bibliology, and Zaspel does a fine job of collecting his best insights and arguments into a coherent chapter. This reviewer doubts that anyone has ever made the case for concursis—the mysterious work by which Scripture is simultaneously 100% human and 100% divine—more effectively than Warfield. His goal was to reaffirm with power and conviction the absolute authority of Scripture, and that is a subject dear to the hearts of Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists would do well to revisit Warfield’s careful explanations of this crucial doctrine.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion in the book is Zaspel’s treatment of Warfield’s apologetics. It has become a commonplace in conservative apologetics to characterize Warfield as the premier evidential apologist, dominated by common-sense categories and unable to comprehend the subtleties of presuppositionalism. Zaspel argues that this portrait should be far more nuanced than it usually is (he goes so far as to criticize Cornelius Van Til for misunderstanding Warfield at this point, page 77). Warfield had a robust doctrine of total depravity; on that basis, he recognized the noetic effects of sin. Zaspel effectively counteracts the common stereotype (each quotation is from Warfield):

“Though ‘pure reason’ be sufficient for the religion of pure nature, what warrants the assumption that its sufficiency is unimpaired when nature is no longer pure?” Moreover, faith “is a moral act and not merely an intellectual assent. It is the response of the whole being to its appropriate object.” This necessarily implies a renewal. The fall and sin have left man with an “intellectual imbecility” that only God can overcome, thus restoring a “right reason.”

Warfield further states that “the condition of right thinking . . . is, therefore, that the Christian man should look upon the seething thought of the world from the safe standpoint of the sure Word of God.” He even goes so far as to criticize that “concessive” attitude of some Christian men that leads them “to accept the tenets which have originated elsewhere than in the Scriptures.” His point is clearly that Scripture alone can shape “right thinking” (page 78).

As far as this goes, it is remarkably presuppositional. It was clear in the book that Warfield did utilize a form of evidentialism, for instance, in his methodology for establishing the trustworthiness of Scripture, but Zaspel’s discussion certainly merits careful consideration. Warfield was apparently not as blind to presuppositions and as dominated by common-sense categories as is sometimes asserted.

The last two chapters—on ecclesiology and eschatology—are rather remarkable. Throughout the rest of the book, even when one disagrees with Warfield’s conclusions, the logical power and precision with which he makes his arguments poses a daunting challenge if one wishes to dissent from him. In contrast, his discussions of infant baptism and postmillennialism strikingly lose this potency. Perhaps, as a Baptist, Zaspel makes a weaker case in these areas, but he seems to be showing the same fidelity to Warfield that is evident throughout the book. Relative to infant baptism, Warfield argues strongly that faith must always precede baptism—an affirmation dear to the hearts of Baptists. Nevertheless, he argues that we must presume, based almost entirely on Acts 2:39 and tradition, that God gives faith to infants in covenant contexts (pages 518–522). As a Baptist this reviewer found this argumentation exceedingly fragile. Somehow, Warfield retained his postmillennialism through the First World War, but Zaspel criticizes his extremely eccentric interpretation of Revelation 20:1–6 (page 542) and notes that Warfield expressed interest in eschatology solely for ethical purposes. Every theologian is shaped by the historical context in which he works, and Warfield’s eschatology shows signs of being assumed rather than carefully derived from Scripture.

Zaspel includes a thorough bibliography, an index, and a Scripture index. He has designed the work to be eminently usable.

This excellent work by Dr. Zaspel faithfully summarizes and clearly communicates the theology of B.B. Warfield. Although that theology sought to lie squarely in the center of historic, Reformed confessionalism, this reviewer—though a Baptist dispensationalist—was greatly blessed by his defense of Scripture, his exaltation of Jesus Christ, and his pervasive desire to glorify God in all things.